On the Growing Influence of Barack Obama, Literary Tastemaker

Readers everywhere rejoiced when the former president dropped his summer reading list last week

Obama 2019 Summer Reading List
Obama's always been a noted bibliophile
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
By Kayla Kibbe / August 19, 2019 7:00 am

Although it’s been around for over 50 years and has published everybody from Norman Mailer to Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and Zadie Smith, the New York Review of Books’ most famous moment crossing over from highbrow semi-monthly magazine that publishes Nobel Prize winners and Supreme Court justices into the mainstream came in 2015 when the President of the United States interviewed Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. Forget the current political landscape, that sort of setup in nearly any year or decade during the modern era seems far fetched. Obama’s questions were … really good. It came across very clearly that the guy really did read and get a lot out of his subject’s work. He was engaging enough that nothing in the conversation might lead the reader to believe somebody on his team had a hand in coming up with the questions. 

Books were sort of Obama’s thing. Throughout his time in the Oval Office, he recommended hundreds of books, often naming his picks in reading lists shared on Facebook. Two years post-presidency, Obama is still spreading the literary love, and his reading lists remain an influential and much-celebrated aspect of his post-White House presence. Last week, the Obama dropped his 2019 summer reading list, sharing his diverse picks of writers and titles in a Facebook post that received tens of thousands of shares and comments. 

“I can’t believe I get a chance to be on this list with these very incredible writers,” tweeted Maid author Stephanie Land, while bookstores from Blackwell’s to Barnes & Noble took to social media to celebrate the president’s new list. 

“When his list of books went up yesterday it almost seemed like you could hear a collective cheer — not only in the publishing industry but from readers all over,” says Kimberly Burns,  a literary publicist at BroadsidePR

Obama’s latest roundup paid homage to the late Toni Morrison, giving the author’s entire catalogue a nod before diving into the list. “You can’t go wrong by reading or re-reading the collected works of Toni Morrison,” he wrote in the Facebook post. “They’re transcendent, all of them. You’ll be glad you read them.” The former president’s other end-of-summer picks included a variety of titles old and new, from Colson Whitehead’s “hard to swallow” yet “necessary” The Nickel Boys to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a historical novel tracing the rise of Thomas Cromwell that came out in 2009. “I was a little busy back then, so I missed it. Still great today,” he wrote. 

Caitlin Luce Baker, a bookseller at Island Books in Seattle, pointed to the diversity in Obama’s latest picks as a significant improvement over fellow amateur book critic Bill Gates’ picks. “Obama’s list is so much better than Gates’, which made me sigh heavily and roll my eyes,” she tells InsideHook.

Over the years, Obama has recommended a vast and diverse catalogue of books, tapping literary classics like The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness, buzzy bestsellers like Gone Girl, and even children’s books from Harry Potter to Junie B. Jones. However casually given, a nod from Obama is nothing if not influential, and the former president’s hobby has gradually given rise to his status a literary influencer on par with OG celebrity book club star Oprah Winfrey. 

Indeed, Obama’s literary influence has even produced evidence of an Oprah-adjacent “Obama effect,” in which every book he taps turns to gold. “I would say at this point that Obama might have an even greater effect,” says Burns, who notes that publicists often send copies of forthcoming books to both Barack and Michelle Obama, “not necessarily expecting an endorsement but because they think they might enjoy them or find them interesting. Getting an endorsement isn’t a strategy — it’s more like hoping to win the lottery.” Burns also adds that, while many of the titles on Obama’s most recent list have already enjoyed a fair amount of critical acclaim, they’re still likely to see a significant bump thanks to the former president’s nod. 

“A couple of years ago he recommended Fates and Furies,” says Mark Haber at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. “I think he said it was his favorite book of the year. That really helped sales.”

While we may not be seeing an Obama book club any time soon, the former president provides a rare male voice in a largely female-dominated literary space helmed by the likes of Oprah and Reese Witherspoon. Covering a wide range of genres, topics and authors, Obama’s recommendations certainly aren’t aimed specifically at male readers, but his voice has helped redefine a literary space often associated — however problematically — with a stereotypically “feminine” vision perhaps best embodied by Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club. 

On occasion, Obama has released a list of recommended titles with a specific audience in mind  — like when he put together a list of feminist classics for his daughter, Malia — but by and large, the former president simply recommends books for book lovers. 

As Burns notes, there’s something very humble about Obama’s recommendations of “diverse, smart fiction and non-fiction — with no agenda, just ‘I enjoyed these, thought you might too.’” Shared from his personal social media accounts and sprinkled with thoughtful commentary and the occasional humorous aside, Obama’s book recommendations read less like an endorsement from a former world leader than a conversation with a close friend who would gladly lend you their own paperback. 

“He was the leader of the free world, one of the most popular presidents ever and his list of books is perfectly diverse,” says Burns. “I think his choices, taken as a whole, represent who we truly are or help set goals for who we might aspire to be.”